Nurse Rescues Stranger in Fiery Wreck

Stephanie Esterland receives multiple honors for aiding in emergency
Stephanie Esterland is a cancer nurse navigator

It was a little before 5 a.m. when Stephanie Esterland, RN, OCN, and her son happened upon on the accident, just as a young man staggered out of his wrecked, burning car and collapsed near it.

Esterland immediately parked her car behind the other vehicles of onlookers stopped alongside the country road and went to help, disregarding her son’s shouted warnings. “He was five, ten feet from the car. You could feel the heat from the car. It sounded like there were fireworks in it,” she recalls.

Worried that the car might explode, Esterland, her son and a bystander moved the young man away from the vehicle. Then she held his head steady — his clavicle was broken — and kept him talking so he’d remain conscious. 

“I kept asking him who he was and asking about his family. I could tell his ankles were broken, has arm had to be broken, he had blood coming out of his mouth,” she says.

She’s not sure how long it took for paramedics to arrive from a nearby firehouse. “Five, ten minutes … it could have been longer.” 

The paramedics took over for Esterland, an off-duty police officer checked the car for other passengers — fortunately, there were none — and firefighters put out the car fire. 

At which point, Esterland finished taking her son, whose car had broken down, to work. Had she not been driving him, she wouldn’t have been on the road that early and arrived in time to help. Then she went on to her job as a cancer nurse navigator at the RUSH University Cancer Center clinic in Lisle.

She later learned that the young man, who had run into a tree, survived the accident, which took place early last June in a rural part of the far western suburbs. He’s credited her for helping save his life.

In recognition of her response that morning, Esterland received the Oncology Nursing Society’s Frontline Care Award on April 28 during the society’s annual conference, held in in Anaheim, California. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago also honored her with the Healthcare Hero award during its annual Heroes Breakfast, which was held on May 11 at the Hilton Chicago.

She previously received the DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses from the DAISY (Diseases Attacking the Immune System) Foundation, which honors nurses who provide exceptionally compassionate and skillful care to patients and families. “Her nursing instincts kicked in, and she did not even consider doing anything besides helping the victim,” her fellow nurses Colleen Bruen, RN, BMTCN, cancer nurse navigator and lymphoma clinic coordinator, and Denise Hauser, RN, OCN, cancer nurse navigator, wrote in nominating Esterland for the award.

An unstoppable hero at work, too

Only when Esterland arrived at work did she realize she had the young driver’s blood on her blouse. Undaunted, she made a quick trip to Walmart for a new shirt and returned to the clinic. “She never considered leaving work, despite all that had already happened within just a few short hours,” Bruen and Hauser wrote.

“Most people would not run toward a burning car,” they continued. “Most people would not help a stranger bloodied from a traumatic accident. Most people would not be able to compose themselves to go on to work and function at a high level. But no one else is Stephanie.”

Remarkably, Esterland has come to the aid of strangers in crisis before. While she and her son were driving near a home on another early morning, they found a man left unconscious in the middle of another country road after a fight, and she called 911 for him. When a 20-something audience member went into a seizure at a concert, she gave his friends direction until paramedics arrived. (Rumors that she also fights crime, however, have not been confirmed.)

For all her improbably frequent heroism, Esterland makes her greatest impact in her day-to-day work, which she divides between the Lisle clinic and the cancer center’s main location on the RUSH University Medical Center campus. She calls patients with cancer ahead of their first appointment to assess their needs and arrange for them to be met. Esterland provides ongoing education for patients and families about the disease and treatment options and tracks patients’ medications to ensure uninterrupted care.

“Stephanie is a caring and empathetic nurse who places patients and families above her needs, and indeed places humanity above her own needs and safety,” says Sharon Manson RN, MS, OCN, associate vice president, oncology nursing, RUSH University Cancer Center.

“Her patients love her, and the compassion she shows in their care is unparalleled. She maintains the highest standards of nursing, critical thinking and leadership qualities,” says Parameswaran Venugopal, MD, the Elodia Kehm Chair of Hematology, professor of medicine and director of the Section of Hematology.

From dropout to doctorate 

Her desire to help people drove Esterland to overcome setbacks to her childhood dream of being a nurse. She dropped out of high school and had three children before going back to school at age 26 and earning her Bachelor of Science in nursing. 

She’d planned on being an obstetrics nurse, but an in-law with head and neck cancer persuaded her to specialize in oncology instead. Esterland previously worked at RUSH Copley Medical Center and joined the cancer center nearly two years ago after working for another organization. “I’m back at RUSH, and it’s great,” she says. 

She loves working with patients from their diagnosis through the treatment process. “You help with every aspect — biopsies, imaging, you provide education, symptom management for their chemotherapy, and you see them do well, or at the other end, you provide palliative care,” she says. “It’s every step of nursing. You get every facet.”

Esterland’s greatest achievements may yet lie ahead of her: She just was accepted to RUSH University College of Nursing’s Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Doctor of Nursing Practice program. RUSH encourages nurses to continue their education and provides prepaid tuition for RUSH nurses enrolled in College of Nursing programs. 

“RUSH is a great place to be at for nursing,” she says. “They back their nurses here, which is really nice.”